During the past few years, over a dozen international comparative studies have consistently reminded us of similar depressing facts. The platforms upon which we debate these findings are littered with statistics that are often misleading in their precision and with arguments that are confusing because of their passion.
Over the years, we have improved the technologies associated with the collection and analyses of the data, and we can now accept them as reliable and comparable. But why are there such startling discrepancies in the average performances across countries?
To date, the surveys have failed to identify factors or variables that seem to consistently relate to failure or to success. Students in countries with crowded classrooms and relatively poorly trained teachers perform as well or better on these tests as their counterparts in more favored circumstances.
Is academic success as simple as having opportunities to learn the content matter and skills that are measured, for example, to be exposed to curricula that are rich and challenging?
Or is it something even more fundamental? For example, do students from different cultures share an equal desire to learn certain subjects?
A recent report from the Center for the Assessment of Educational Progress explores this idea and advances some compelling observations. Its author, John Modell, and his colleagues, a group of scholars deeply familiar with some of the countries that participated in the second International Assessment of Educational Progress, suggest that young students easily determine what kind of learning their societies value and that they act according to those perceptions as they sit in classrooms.
Not only do students absorb notions of what their cultures feel is important, so do their parents and teachers. The adults reflect these values in their expectations and their demands (standards) of student performance.
For example, in our culture it is absolutely unacceptable for me to admit that I can’t read a newspaper. Embarrassment and shame are my personal penalties, and these are shared by my family and friends. On the other hand, it is fun and charming to admit, or even to brag about, the fact that math is so unimportant to me that I cannot seem to ever balance my checkbook.
International comparative studies put the United States near the top in reading and near the bottom in mathematics performance. We should not be surprised.
Mr. Modell and his colleagues remind us that in Hungary and France, strong traditions and institutional patterns direct all children’s attention toward schools that are structured around notions of academic excellence. Children and their parents look to schooling as essential to achieving success in the adult world of work. As a result, the formal curricular content of what schools teach is understood to be worthy of such significance. French and Hungarian students do well in comparative studies.
On the other hand, at the national level in England and Scotland, school, as such, seems to have rather slight legitimacy and has relatively little impact on children’s lives in and of itself. Grade promotion, for example, is almost entirely automatic and children do relatively little homework. Local social environments seem to be reflected in the neighborhood schools of England, and school-to-school differences in average scores were greater in England than in any of the other 19 countries that participated in the I.A.E.P. II, the international assessment.
The authors’ analyses of our Canadian neighbors are especially intriguing. They point out that the French schools of the province of Quebec, which perform quite well in these studies, greatly resemble those in France, where an education is an important element of being “civilized.’' This belief, along with the pressures of “cultural survival,’' may explain a grade-promotion policy that demands measurable, standardized achievement by schoolchildren.
The schools of Canada’s largest province, Ontario, are remarkably undifferentiated from one another in their I.A.E.P. scores and heterogeneous within each building. Canadian children’s self-evaluation is seldom based on comparison with other students in the same school. The authors suggest that this is not surprising considering the organization of Ontario’s schools, which feature automatic grade promotion and eschew special classes in math and science.
Finally, the report describes the crowded classrooms of Korean 13-year-olds, facing teachers who define for them an authoritative curriculum. School learning fits into children’s lives differently from the way it does in many other societies. Learning school subjects seems more fully accepted by children, who judge their own excellence as scholars without competitive reference to their school peers but rather through a uniquely clear-cut awareness of the scope of the curriculum and their degree of mastery of it. Korean children understand their parents’ involvement in their education as a given and part of a larger cultural commitment to achieve in school. The “pressure’’ to do homework and to be a successful student in Korea does not come only from mothers but from everywhere--from the nation as a collective entity and from the clear association between success in school and occupational success.
In the United States, my grandchildren are forming opinions about what’s important in our society as they absorb Saturday mornings filled with “mad’’ scientists, caricatured “professors,’' and the clever pranks of cartoon schoolchildren. These images are juxtaposed to the glories and professional surroundings of college football stadia and basketball courts. The televised interviews with their often inarticulate athletic heroes are competing with parental admonitions to get their homework done if they want to grow up and be “successful.’'
In Desire To Learn, John Modell realistically makes this point: “As appealing to Americans as the high I.A.E.P. scores of Korean or Hungarian children might be, the integration of school learning and other elements of childhood that the Korean or Hungarian portrait imply would probably not suit most Americans. American national values hold childhood to be a period for the development of the individual in an increasingly rich and educative social world. Cognitive achievements are just one aspect of this.’'
He wisely goes on to suggest that efforts to " ... toughen and make more explicit the formal curricular demands of school, might place before many American children a challenge they could neither comfortably accomplish nor adequately honor. Parental support, American children’s first line of defense against defeatism ... might not be equal to the task.’'
U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and others probably have it right when they add to their admonition to parents to turn off the TV set and to discuss schoolwork with their children, the notion that, collectively, we can become a serious learning society. If first employers were to ask for school transcripts and insist on rigorous high school diplomas or certificates of initial mastery, for example, parents and students would view schooling in a different light. The optimists among us can begin to see this happening as business, industry, governors, and citizens seem to be staying the course in pursuit of improved educational outcomes.
Our own unique cultural patterns will have to evolve their own formula for convincing our children that learning what is taught in school is important for all of our young citizens. We are struggling to reach some basic agreements on national standards in several curriculum areas. These will need refining and broad acceptance. Thanks to the U.S. Labor Department’s SCANS frameworks, we are closer to national agreement on the necessary skills for successful employment.
These documents could become the pages of a new, common national hymnal. If we could, all of us, learn to sing together, chances are good that the children would get the message.
Our lurching forward may be clumsy at times as we grapple with the crude levers of curriculum standards and test scores, but experience suggests that we can become more skillful at using these tools and at inventing whole new kinds of technologies to get us where we want to go.
The key is just that--where we, and our students, WANT to go.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1993 edition of Education Week as To Learn or Not To Learn: Opportunity Vs. Desire